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Rufino Tamayo

Black-and-white photo of Rufino Tamayo wearing an apron, sitting on a stool, palette in hand in front of one of his paintings.
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Rufino Tamayo is best known for portraying modern Mexican subjects through a mixture of international avant-garde styles and local sensibilities. 

Along with the three great muralists of the time—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—Tamayo brought international attention to the Mexican art scene during the second half of the 20th century. However, unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t imprint an evident political agenda on his work nor did he use figurative realism to convey and celebrate “mexicanidad”—pride in the unique racial and cultural mix of Mexico. Importantly for Tamayo, “mexicanidad” was not clearly defined; he did not agree with the extreme patriotism and nationalism that Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco proclaimed. He wrestled with the portrayal of Mexican identity, seeking to convey what he described as “the true essence of Mexicanness” rather than the “Mexicanness of anecdote.” Tamayo gave more attention to exploring materials, forms, and colors, and his figural approach was more fractured, schematic, and abstract than figurative realism allowed. Adroitly synthesizing influences from Mexican and international sources including Cubism and Surrealism, Tamayo conceived life and art as a universal heartbeat: “Art, like culture, is international. It’s the result of many parts to which we add our own tone.”

Early in 1921, Tamayo was appointed the head of the Department of Ethnographic Drawing at the National Museum of Archaeology, History, and Ethnography in Mexico City. Drawing precolonial objects while running the museum’s collection gave him the opportunity to closely study these objects and later integrate the forms and natural tones into his early still lifes and portraits. Along with the material properties of indigenous art, Tamayo also began incorporating its mythical themes and, increasingly, non-representational imagery into his own work. 

The first exhibition of Tamayo’s work in the United States was held in the Weyhe Gallery in New York in 1926. Ten years later the artist moved to New York where he contributed to the city´s dynamic cultural scene of postwar art. While living in the city he had contact with European modernism and was greatly inspired by Pablo Picasso’s work. He incorporated elements from the early New York School of painters and shared common interests with younger American artists including Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb. In 1938 he taught in the Dalton School of Art in New York and belonged to the Works in Progress Administration project for a short time. 

A Woman with a Bird Cage (1941) in the Art Institute’s collection exemplifies his mature style.  Painted in New York, it demonstrates his unique synthesis of international languages like Cubism, Surrealism, and folklorism with Mexican iconography. The Art Institute acquired it directly from the artist shortly after he finished it.

The artist’s career flourished internationally, as he divided his time between New York, Mexico City, and in the 1950s, Paris, which he first visited in 1948. In 1964, he returned permanently to Mexico City. A decade later, he established the Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, to display his collection. He also founded a contemporary art museum, the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, which includes an extensive collection of work by modern and contemporary international artists. By the time of his death in 1991, he had become the spokesman for Mexican art in the international art world and left an extensive oeuvre that remains highly significant for its innovative blend of modernist movements and Mexican themes.

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